Trash Planet: United Kingdom

The Trash Planet series highlights various countries around the world and how they handle their waste.

To set its nations on the path toward zero-waste communities, the U.K. has adopted policies similar to countries that already have some of the most successful waste management schemes, such as The Netherlands and Germany.

Until 2000, the household recycling and composting rate for the entire U.K. was less than 10 percent, but in 2006 and 2007, that figure passed 30 percent. To keep the momentum going, the U.K. Government has set goals for itself for future progress: 40 percent by 2010, 45 percent by 2015 and 50 percent by 2020, according to England’s Waste Strategy Annual Progress Report (EWSAPR).

Jane-Marie Fatkin, a 25-year-old American living in Surrey, says she thinks England is more mindful of recycling than the U.S.


With a population of more than 61 million, the U.K.'s waste strategy is vital throughout England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Photo:

“I think this is due to the space issue. They have to be mindful of it, because a ton of people are populating such a small island, and they don’t want to live in a trash bin. Whereas, in America, it seems that it is not as big of an issue, logistically, because of space.”

National Waste Strategies

Adequate waste collection and waste disposal are issues that the U.K. takes seriously, as made clear by the number of departments and organizations that have been formed in order to keep the countries organized and up-to-date in these matters.

The U.K. government ideally wants to reduce, or at least stabilize, the rate at which waste is created. It encourages the use of as few natural resources as possible in the manufacturing of goods, as well as efforts to recover value from whatever materials remain post-use.

According to the EWSAPR, all U.K. countries have adopted variations of essentially the same hierarchy of waste management prioritization, which is:

1. Waste prevention
2. Reuse
3. Recycling and composting
4. Disposal with energy recovery
5. Disposal

The government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is responsible for maintaining the National Waste Strategy, umbrella guidelines and directives which are consulted by the individual countries of the U.K.

In 1990, the U.K.’s Environmental Protection Act (EPA) set forth a number of eco-conscious standards, including limits on emissions and guidelines for issuing waste disposal licenses. Added to the EPA five years later, the Environment Act of 1995 directed the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to prepare a National Waste Strategy for England and Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) to create a strategy for Scotland.

England’s Waste Plan

According to the EWSAPR, the most recently updated version of the strategy for England is the WS2007, which was published in 2007 and addresses:

  • Implementing effective regulation
  • Creating financial incentives for recycling
  • Increasing resource efficiency
  • Stimulating investment in waste collection and treatment
  • Improving local and regional governance
  • Promoting public awareness
  • Standardizing methods for collecting data

England’s strategy claims that all parts of society are responsible for safe and adequate waste management. Businesses must rethink the design of their products, packaging and processes in order to minimize waste, as well as incorporate recycled materials and take responsibility for products to the end of their life cycles.

Consumers, too, must take responsibility for reducing waste by recycling in their homes and choosing less wasteful products and services when shopping.

Photo: Flickr/Ben

Scotland has set a goal of achieving a 40 percent recycling rate by the end of 2010. Photo: Flickr/Ben

Scotland’s Waste Plan

In 1999, SEPA and the Scottish Executive launched Scotland’s National Waste Strategy, with an updated National Waste Plan published in 2003.

At the time of the NWP’s publication, Scotland was sending more than 90 percent of its municipal waste to landfills, therefore major goals included reducing the landfilling of biodegradable waste and beginning successful recycling and composting initiatives.

In 2007, Scotland transferred responsibility for the National Waste Management Plan to the Scottish Ministry.

In January 2008, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment issued the statement that the country would be moving toward a goal of zero waste, along with the rest of the U.K., as well as most other countries in the European Union.

Wales’ Waste Plan

In accordance with the Environment Act of 1995, the Welsh Assembly also created a national waste strategy, called Wise About Waste. The plan includes measures to increase the use of recycled and composted materials in both the public and private sectors, as well as campaigns to raise public awareness and implement more environmentally friendly methods for managing waste.

In 2002, as part of the Wise About Waste strategy, Wales directed its 22 local authorities to individually achieve, at minimum, a 15 percent recycling and composting rate by 2003 or 2004. However, by the directive’s deadline, only 13 authorities were able to meet this goal. In fact, in 2003 and 2004, the country’s collective recycling rate was only about 9.8 percent, with composting at 6.4 percent, making for a combined rate of a little more than 16 percent, according to the Welsh Assembly.

However the government of Wales said it will continue to work with all authorities that did not reach their 2003 and 2004 goal in order to ensure all municipalities achieve by 2009 or 2010 a minimum rate of 15 percent each for recycling and composting, with a combined rate of 40 percent.

Northern Ireland’s Waste Plan

The Department of the Environment (DOE) was created in 1999 by the Northern Ireland Act of 1998 and the Departments (Northern Ireland) Order of 1999. The DOE, in collaboration with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, is responsible for regulating waste, including the drafting of new management policies and the improvement of existing ones.

Northern Ireland drafted an initial Waste Management Strategy in 2000, but in 2006, the plan was reviewed and an updated strategy, called Towards Resources Management, was published to carry the country through the year 2020. This current waste management scheme focuses on improving past weaknesses, including:

  • Waste prevention
  • Effective leadership
  • Waste management facilities
  • Consideration of all waste types
  • Data collection
  • Combat of illegal waste activities

Generation of Waste

In 2007 and 2008, England generated 28.5 million tons of municipal waste. That’s a lot of trash, but that’s also a 2.2 percent decrease from the 29.1 million tons that were generated in 2006 and 2007. Additionally, the total household waste generated in England also experienced a decrease during that period of time, from 25.8 to 25.3 million tons, according to Defra.

Photo: Flickr/Dimitry B

England is currently experimenting with converting waste into energy. At some facilities, material is not just simply incinerated, but the resulting gases are recovered and reused, or the resulting materials are refined and reused. Photo: Flickr/Dimitry B

The decline in household waste reflects the improved rate of waste generated per person in England. After taking into consideration volumes of recycled and composted waste, the household waste generated per person in England has decreased from 450 kilograms in 2000 and 2001 to 324 kilograms in 2007 and 2008, according to Defra – a substantial 22 percent decrease.

Mary Finch, a 28-year-old American living in Belfast, says that although most of Northern Ireland is very clean, rubbish is a visible problem in her city.

“I see a lot of trash on the street here, it shocked me at first,” she says. “Here everyone just tosses their food wrappers, cups, etc., in the street as they are walking. A city sweeper truck comes by our street twice a week and cleans everything up.”

Recycling and Composting

Household recycling rates in England have steadily risen in recent years, and data from 2007 and 2008 puts the figure at 34.5 percent, according to Defra.

Fatkin points out ways the English authorities try to promote recycling: “Trash isn’t a visible problem in Surrey,” she says. “Most people recycle most of their waste. I know the county council works hard to ensure that people recycle – by giving small bins and only collecting once every two weeks. So people don’t really have a choice but to recycle.”

According to the Environment Agency, in 2006 and 2007, the amount of material collected from households for recycling was 8 million tons and included:

  • 36 percent compost
  • 19 percent paper and cardboard
  • 10 percent glass
  • 7 percent scrap metal and miscellaneous

With so much biodegradable waste collected from homes, England’s potential for composting is huge. The organization WRAP, which encourages the efficient use of resources in the U.K., along with environmental agencies, initiated the Waste Protocols Project. The project’s goal is to facilitate Quality Protocols in order to determine how to better reuse certain waste materials, such as food, according to the EWSAPR.

In March 2007, the project launched a Quality Protocol to produce high-standard compost from biodegradable waste, including plant waste. According to the EWSAPR, by May 2008, the number of participating producers equaled 157 sites composting 2,544,500 input tons annually.

Of recycling in Belfast, Finch says, “The recycling is really good. Everyone does recycle, as it is pushed by the city. You get three trash cans per house: a green one for recyclables, a brown one for compost and a black one for trash. The city picks them all up every week.”

Waste Disposal

England is sending approximately 100 million tons of waste to landfills each year, of which about two-thirds, or 67 million tonnes, is biodegradable material. But if the country is going to comply with the EU Landfill Directive, which sets limitations on the amount of waste that EU countries are permitted to dispose of in this way, England will have to dramatically decrease this landfill rate.

The EU Landfill Directive requires landfilled biodegradable municipal waste in England to be reduced to 11.2 million tons in 2010, 7.5 million tons in 2013 and 5.2 million tons in 2020.

Not only is England under the binding obligations of the EU directive, but research shows that England will, in fact, run out of landfill capacity for household waste by the year 2020, with London’s non-hazardous landfill sites expected to be filled to capacity by the end of 2010.

In 2003, Scotland passed laws requiring that landfills only accept pre-treated wastes in an effort to reduce the volume of waste and minimize disposal costs. Treatment also reduces biodegradability, as waste biodegrading in landfills releases harmful greenhouse gases, according to SEPA.

In 2007 and 2008, Scotland landfilled 1.37 million tons of biodegradable municipal waste, and approximately 2.33 million tons (66 percent) of Scotland’s municipal waste was sent to landfills, according to SEPA.


As part of the EU, the countries of the U.K. are obligated to adhere to the EU Waste Framework Directive, including the revisions made to the directive in June 2008 by the Council of Environment Ministers and the European Parliament in June 2008. Scheduled to go into effect in 2010, the main changes include EU-wide targets for reuse and recycling 50 percent of household waste by the year 2020.

To ensure they reach these goals, each country will look to its national plan strategy in order to gradually minimize waste and increase recycling and prevention.

Whether some of the U.K. countries’ goals can be realistically achieved on deadline or not remains to be seen. However, it’s clear that with so many initiatives in place, the citizens are ready to work toward making a positive impact.

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  1. Europe and the rest of the world is far ahead of the U.S. in conservation. In the United States, even a large number of people elect not to believe in the science behind the enviroment. What hope is there that we can make progress.

  2. @ Jerry M : yes, Western/Northern Europe is ahead, but Latin Europe (parts of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal) and Eastern Europe are lagging far behind!

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